Putting words to rest

Posted: Jul 07, 2006 1:52 PM
That words matter has few dissenters, especially among those who try to make sense with them.

The right word is the writer's Holy Grail. Often elusive, the mot juste is the lullaby that sends one into rapturous sleep, while its evil twin - the ill-chosen word - can have the opposite effect.

My sleep has been troubled the past few weeks by a choice of words that prompted some polite protest from some African-American readers. It was "lynch mob," which I used to refer to the public indictment and conviction of three Duke lacrosse team members who have been charged with raping a black stripper (who, I hasten to add, is a student and mother).

I was using the term to suggest that the media and a willing public were trying the young men without benefit of due process. Even knowing how provocative the word can be, I justified using it because its original meaning was closer to my intent than to the more modern understanding of "lynching" associated with slavery and Jim Crow.

The word "lynch" dates back to the American Revolution thanks to one Col. Charles Lynch, who took justice into his own hands to punish loyalists. Lynch held his own court and punished those he deemed deserving. Punishment usually involved flogging, but no one was ever killed.

Fast-forward, and lynching earned a new and horrific meaning familiar to all Americans. Between roughly the end of Reconstruction and the Great Depression, there were 2,805 documented lynchings in 10 Southern states, according to Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, authors of "A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930."

Other estimates including undocumented lynchings come closer to 5,000. Although several hundred whites were lynched, most victims were blacks killed by white mobs. This painful period in our history is so agonizing to recall that we may be forgiven for wanting to avert our gaze.

No apology will ever be adequate for the crimes committed. Likewise, some of my readers said, no use of the word "lynching" or "lynch mob" can be justified to describe lesser events.

Their argument rests on the premise that such extreme suffering grants reluctant ownership of the word to the victim group. African-Americans "own" lynching in the same way Jews "own" the Holocaust.

In the wake of 9/11, many writers used the word "holocaust" to describe the events at the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Indeed, what we witnessed meets the technical definition of "holocaust," which Merriam-Webster describes as (1) a sacrifice consumed by fire; (2) thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life, especially through fire."

Only the third definition refers to the mass slaughter of European civilians, especially Jews, by the Nazis during World War II.

Even so, there's a clear difference - both in scale and significance - between 9/11 and the Holocaust, just as there is a clear difference between the "lynch mob" mentality directed toward the Duke players and the terrorism of lynching that was directed against blacks in this country.

In retrospect, I agree with my readers that I was wrong to use the word as I did. It was convenient and it seemed to fit. But it trivialized a horror that deserves its own word and its own place in the American lexicon.

Part of what changed my mind was reading Sebastian Junger's "A Death in Belmont," a book that is part investigative journalism and part memoir about the Boston Strangler. More to the point, Junger revisits the civil rights era and reminds us of just how horrible lynching really was.

I suspect that most Americans, like me, think of lynching as hanging. We've seen the picture postcards that whites used to send to friends and relatives. We've marveled in disbelief at the faces of men, women and children as they gathered as though for a picnic to watch a black man swing from the end of a rope.

Not that that isn't horrible enough.

But, as Junger writes, many lynchings were far, far worse. Victims - some of them teens guilty of nothing more than insolence or looking at the wrong person - were tortured, their fingers cut off, their teeth pulled with pliers, their eyes gouged out, castrated and burned alive.

This, sadly, is what "lynching" means in modern American history.

Some words - lynching and Holocaust among them - really do belong to their victims.